Graham Rahal cherishes the year he spent as teammate to the late Justin Wilson in 2008, when the teenager learned important things about life and racing from the gentle Briton. Fifteen years later, he’s getting another opportunity to partner with the Wilson family, this time with Justin’s younger brother Stefan, who is sidelined from competing in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 due to injury.
In one of the most remarkable stories imaginable at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Stefan Wilson, his sponsor and team owner Don Cusick, and the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team that fields Wilson’s No. 24 Chevy have asked Rahal to be their driver in the 107th Indy 500.
“We are very sad that Stefan was injured Monday and now is unable to compete this Sunday in the No. 24 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing/Cusick Motorsports/CareKeepers Chevrolet,” said Dennis Reinbold, DRR team owner.
“Stefan put so much effort into this race that it is just heartbreaking for this to have happened. However, we are announcing that Graham Rahal will now drive the No. 24 car this Sunday. We have known Graham for over a decade as he drove our car in 2010 at Iowa Speedway. He suffered through a tough weekend here, but we believe Graham can perform very well this Sunday.”
The call was made on Monday, the day after Rahal was bumped from the field in his own No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, and Rahal accepted, completing an emotion-filled journey of his own. The opportunity comes after Wilson received the news that he’d fractured his back and would be unable to race after being hit from behind and launched into the Turn 1 wall at over 200mph during practice.
“First and foremost, the only thing that matters is that Stefan is doing well considering the circumstances,” said Cusick. “We are completely gutted for Stefan and now will miss his favorite racing event, the legendary Indy 500. We wouldn’t be here without him and we are committed to supporting him every step on the way to recovery and beyond.
“Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and our partners have been nothing but supportive and I couldn’t be more thankful. I am happy that we could fill the seat of the No. 24 DRR/Cusick Motorsports/CareKeepers Chevy with a quality replacement in Graham Rahal. Graham knows the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval very well and we wish him the best this Sunday in the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Wilson qualified 25th on Sunday, and with the Cusick/DRR team preparing a new No. 24 entry for Rahal after the primary chassis was destroyed, he’ll get his first chance to drive it during Friday’s two-hour final practice from 11am-1pm. Due to the change of driver, it’s unclear whether IndyCar will move the No. 24 car to the back of the 33-car field to start the race or allow Rahal to take Wilson’s original qualifying position.
“I’ll admit it was a very tough weekend for me and the United Rentals/Fifth Third Bank/RLL team,” said Rahal. “We tried everything, and we just didn’t have the speed. I’m very sad that Stefan was injured in practice on Monday. I wish him a quick recovery.
“I want to thank Dennis and Don for giving me this opportunity in the No. 24 car. I’m anxious to work with the team and prepare for the greatest race in the world, the Indianapolis 500.”
Fifth Third Bank and United Rentals, which had partnered with Rahal on the No.15 entry, will move across to the No.24.
Fostered by the gratitude for all that Justin Wilson gave while mentoring the 19-year-old IndyCar sophomore, the enduring bond between Rahal and the Wilsons runs deep. With Wilson’s loss at the Pocono IndyCar race in 2015, Rahal swept into action to care for Wilson’s wife Julia and young daughters Jane and Jess by rallying the IndyCar paddock and some of the sport’s biggest names spanning NASCAR and Formula 1 to donate helmets and other memorabilia for a charity auction.
Driven by Rahal’s tireless efforts, which also included help from Stefan Wilson, $637,067.94 was raised for Justin Wilson’s wife and daughters. In their proverbial hour of need, Rahal was there, and with an opportunity to return the kindness, Rahal was chosen over a number of drivers to ensure he didn’t miss out on competing in the race that means the most to every IndyCar driver.